Your Mac can continue to surprise you years after you have been using one. Recently, I discovered many tiny but useful macOS features and now another one has popped up on my radar. It’s the “three-finger drag”. How does it work?
Anything you can click and drag on your Mac with a trackpad or mouse, you can drag with three fingers. No clicks involved!
You’ll love the three-finger drag if you have a repetitive strain injury like carpal tunnel syndrome. The gesture is also worth adding to your workflow if you work with graphics programs like Adobe Photoshop.
You can leave now and three-finger-drag everything you see on your Mac’s screen as an experiment, or you can stick around and explore the gesture with us. We’ll show you what you can use it for, right after we show you how to enable it.
How to Enable “Three-Finger Drag” on macOS
Head to System Preferences > Accessibility > Mouse & Trackpad > Trackpad Options… and select the Enable dragging checkbox, followed by three finger drag from the dropdown menu.
Hit the OK button to save the change. Now you’re ready to use this powerful, lesser-known multitouch gesture on your Mac.
Wait! Doesn’t dragging or swiping with three fingers down the trackpad reveal all the open windows in the current application? You’re right, it does. Apple calls the feature App Exposé. If you plan to use three-finger drag though, you’ll have to train yourself to use four fingers instead of three to trigger App Exposé. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it in no time.
Visit System Preferences > Trackpad > More Gestures after enabling three-finger drag. You’ll see that macOS has updated the shortcut for App Exposé. If you select Swipe down with three fingers once again to revert to the old shortcut, macOS disables the dragging feature we enabled above. Mission Control also switches to a four-finger shortcut when you enable three-finger drag.
Does your Mac come with a non-Force Touch trackpad? Then you should find the three-finger drag setting under System Preferences > Trackpad, even in Yosemite and beyond.
Now it’s time to see where the three-finger drag comes in handy. Keep in mind that for the rest of this article when we say you have to drag a particular element, we mean you have to use three fingers.
How to Use Three-Finger Drag Across macOS
Select anything on-screen by dragging over it. This works with text, images, links, files and folders in Finder… anything! If you can marquee-select it with a click-and-drag trackpad or mouse action, you can select it with the three-finger drag.
Select list items by dragging up or down from an empty space above or below the list over the items you want to select. Of course, this works only in lists that allow multiple selection.
Rearrange items by dragging and dropping them where you want them to show up. Now try it with tabs and bookmarks in Safari, with apps in the dock, or with events in Calendar. Hold down the Cmd key and you can rearrange toolbar icons with a three-finger drag. If you change your mind midway, hit the Escape key to put the item you’re dragging back in its original location.
Move through list items one by one. Drag with three fingers over the list and release the trackpad over any highlighted item to jump to it. To ensure that you don’t end up rearranging items, start with the cursor in an empty space above or below the list and not over any list item. Experiment with this gesture using sidebar items in Finder, lists in Reminders, or Favorites in Safari.
Sometimes you’ll end up selecting items while trying to scroll through them. You’ll need some practice to get the hang of moving through items versus selecting them.
You can also use the three-finger drag to jump between EPUB chapters in iBooks.
Move windows around by dragging their title bar. For apps that don’t have a dedicated title bar, drag the top edge of the window. You can also drop apps between desktops in Mission Control with the three-finger drag.
Resize windows and columns horizontally or vertically by dragging the appropriate edges in or out. For windows, drag the corners in or out to resize both horizontally and vertically.
Save images or duplicate them by dragging them to an open Finder folder. With this action you can, say, download an image from a web page or create a copy of a picture from the Photos app.
Scrub through videos by dragging back and forth over the progress bar slider.
Try the Three-Finger Drag in Various Mac Apps
We’ll highlight a few examples and leave it to you to discover more uses for this versatile drag gesture.
Set a schedule while creating an event. Let’s say you want to schedule an event, from 11am to 6pm. In the Week view, drag from the 11am mark to the 6am one for the relevant day. You’ll then get a popup box right there with this schedule filled in and all you have to do is type in the name of the event to create it. The three-finger gesture works across hours, days, and months and in the Day and Month views as well.
Move files by dragging them to the right location. If you want to create copies instead, hold down the Option key while you’re dragging. You’ll see a “+” icon show up next to the file, which indicates that you’re creating a duplicate.
Open links by dragging and dropping them onto the tab bar. If you drop them onto an existing tab, the link opens within it. If you want to open the link in a new tab, drag and drop it onto the Create a new tab button (i.e. the “plus” button at the right of the tab bar).
Start forwarding images, videos, and links by dragging them between conversations. This pastes the data in the message box. All you have to do next is hit Enter to send the message.
Tilt maps by dragging over the 3D button up and down. If you can’t get this to work, click on the 3D button once before you drag it. If you want to rotate a map, drag around the inner edge of that button.
Learn How to “Coast”
When you use the three-finger drag, “running out of trackpad” is a common problem. You can fix it with a special gesture called coasting. That’s more or less like sliding up and down a supermarket aisle, but for files, windows, tabs, and such.
Let’s say you want to drag a file in Finder from the extreme right to a sidebar folder. To coast the file across:
- Drag the file a little distance.
- Lift two fingers off the trackpad.
- Flick the file with the third finger, which is still on the trackpad, to the sidebar folder.
You can use coasting to move tabs and windows also.
Enable This Accessibility Setting, Too!
Your Mac reads selected text aloud to you when you click on Edit > Speech > Start Speaking. For a long time I wondered why macOS doesn’t have a default keyboard shortcut for this basic speech function. Turns out that it does, but again, it’s in a less-explored location: System Preferences > Accessibility > Speech.
Select the Speak selected text when the key is pressed option to enable the shortcut. The default shortcut is Option + Escape, but you can set up a new one if you click on the Change Key… button.
macOS has some super useful trackpad gestures. Don’t leave it too long to find and adopt the best ones. Give the three-finger drag a shot today! If you find the gesture annoying, you can go back to “click and drag” anytime, but we’re hoping you’ll like three-finger drag enough to stick with it.
Which obscure macOS feature transformed your workflow once you discovered it? Tell us about it in the comments!